September 8, 2014 / 7:18 AM / 3 years ago

Barshim the Asian exception in track and field

First placed Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar celebrates after the men's high jump final at the world indoor athletics championships at the ERGO Arena in Sopot March 9, 2014.Kai Pfaffenbach

(Reuters) - The athletics competition at the 17th Asian Games lacks the stardust Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang sprinkled over the last couple of editions but high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim brings a touch of genuine world class talent to Incheon.

While the continent has become more competitive in other high profile sports, success in track and field remains the exception rather than the rule and there are no reigning world champions from Asia.

Like Liu before him, Qatari Barsham is the current Asian standout and his battle with Ukrainian Bohdan Bondarenko for supremacy in the air has been one of the highlights of the Diamond League season.

Only one man has ever jumped higher than Barshim and the London Olympic bronze medallist is inching ever closer to the world record of 2.45 metres Cuban great Javier Sotomayer set more than two decades ago.

The 23-year-old, who is Doha-born and not an African import like many competing for Gulf states, has been in brilliant form this year, jumping 2.38m to win the world indoor title, 2.42m in New York in June and 2.43m to win the Diamond League final.

Barshim has targeted retaining the title he won in 2010 as one of his main objectives this year and could set the bar high if the weather conditions are favourable.

With Liu leading the way, China were the dominant athletics force in Guangzhou four years ago, winning 13 of the 47 golds and 36 of the 144 medals up for grabs.

They will again be looking for a good haul over the seven days of competition from Sept. 27-Oct. 3 and although their international strength is in the field and on the race-walk circuit, they are also competitive on the track in Asia.

Su Bingtian will be hoping to keep for China the blue riband 100m title surprisingly won by Lao Yi four years ago and will be an integral member of a strong sprint relay team. Nigerian-born Femi Ogunode, who won the 200m and 400m double for Qatar as a teenager in Guangzhou, is still in the vanguard of top Asian sprinters but exciting young Japanese talent Yoshihide Kiryu has the fastest time of the year in the 100m.

The 18-year-old world junior bronze medallist, who many believe could be the first athlete of Asian origin to dip under the 10-second barrier in the 100m, ran 10.05 in Kumagaya in May, backing up the 10.01 he ran in 2013.

Although he has struggled with thigh, heel and hip injuries this season, Kiryu will be determined to secure his first major title in Incheon and is considering doubling up in the 200m.

His compatriot, Chisato Fukushima, did the women's sprint double in Guangzhou and is again among the favourites in Incheon, although Kazakh Olga Safranova is the Asian leader this year in the 100m (11.23) and 200m (22.85).

Kazakhstan is also the home of Asia's only reigning track and field Olympic champion in triple jumper Olga Rypakova and the 29-year-old has been aiming to peak for her title defense in Incheon after missing last season through injury.

Her compatriot Dmitriy Karpov, who won decathlon bronze at the 2004 Olympics, is still going strong at 33 and will defend the title he won in Doha and Guangzhou having retained the Asian indoor title in heptathlon earlier this year.

A string of East Africans in the colours of Gulf states should dominate the middle distance events, challenged only by the strong Saudi men's contingent and the women of India, for whom Tintu Luka is a strong gold medal hope in the 800m.

Saudi Yousef Masrahi is another exciting homegrown Gulf talent and he will be a strong favorite to take Ogunode's 400m crown after running five sub-45 second times this year.

Discus thrower Ehsan Hadadi, who won Iran's first Olympic athletics medal when he finished second in London, has refused to compete for his country since 2013 in a row over funding and looks unlikely to defend the title he won in 2006 and 2010.

Hopes of local success rest in the sand of the long jump pit, where Kim Deok-hyeon and Jung Soon-ok are the defending men and women's champions, as well as on the race-walking circuit and marathon course.

Reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney; Editing by Peter Rutherford

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